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Born and raised in a “Most Backward Caste” in South India, political science professor Hill Krishnan came to the United States when he was 26 years old, with $1,140 and one suitcase.
Growing up in a caste system, notorious for economically poor living standards and a lack of education, Krishnan says most of his first cousins did not even receive an eighth-grade education.
Nevertheless, that did not stop him from pursing his ambition to become a scholar. Opportunities were his driving motive in coming to the U.S.
“I flew to the U.S. where my skin color will not stop me, my caste will not stop me and who my father is will not stop me,” he said. “I could be whoever I want to be.”
Krishnan’s flight to the U.S. was the first time he had been on a plane or in an airport. His visa was rejected the first time because he did not have enough money. However, he was granted a visa after his second attempt — it just took some convincing with the American visa officer.
“When I received the visa, I couldn’t resist tears in my eyes,” Krishnan said. “My mother said that was the happiest moment of her life.”
Krishnan moved to New York City to earn a graduate degree at New York University (NYU). It was difficult not having anyone in the U.S. to support him financially or morally, and as a result he lived in the NYU library and showered at the university’s gym.
After obtaining two master’s degrees at NYU and a Ph.D. from Boston University, Krishnan applied for a position at Cal Poly when his wife was hired at Atascadero State Hospital this past year.
“They didn’t have any openings, but they said they would be willing to give me a position as lecturer,” he said. “Two full-time positions for a tenure track were coming, and I thought I could come and prove myself.”
Krishnan was hired in a temporary position for the 2014-2015 academic year, but he was not selected for the tenure track position.
Students were outraged.
“When someone so special and amazing as Dr. Hill Krishnan comes here, changes lives and motivates people and are not given a job, it’s concerning and raises questions,” political science senior Lance Iunker said. “You wonder why someone this amazing would get passed up for anyone.”
Krishnan’s students did not remain silent. Political science junior Anthony Branch began a 13-page Google document of testimonials from other students who had Krishnan, advocating for the professor to remain at Cal Poly.
Collaborating with sociology senior Brenee English, Branch and Iunker spoke to their Critical Issues in American Politics class to present their proposal for a petition comprised of the students’ statements. Together, they compiled 96 signatures and 30 student testimonials.
On March 5, the students met in the Julian A. McPhee University Union with five copies of the petition in hand, ready to take action.
They advocated at the offices of Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, provost Kathleen Enz Finken, Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusivity Annie Holmes and College of Liberal Arts Dean Doug Epperson.
Armstrong did not want to be involved with the petition process, English said. She received a phone call the next day from his assistant telling her the hiring process falls under the dean of the specific college.
According to Associate Vice Provost for Academic Personnel Albert Liddicoat, the hiring process for permanent tenure track positions is long and strenuous. Some positions may bring in over 300 applicants, and most are recruited from off-campus.
The procedure is a competitive recruitment.
“If someone is doing a good job in the lecturer position and has a Ph.D., we can’t just appoint them,” Liddicoat said. “They have to go through this national process and verify that we are hiring the most qualified person that applies for that position.”
Candidates submit numerous materials for a complete application, including an online application, curriculum vitae (resume for faculty), letters of reference and possible additional materials such as previous student evaluations. A background in the industry is a plus, Liddicoat said.
Those who stand out are invited to the campus under the dean’s discretion, where they prepare two presentations and meet with the college’s specific department they are inquiring about.
Prospective professors are evaluated by a faculty committee composed of tenure staff chosen by the college’s staff. One person from the committee is elected to be the employment equity facilitator, who is trained and responsible to validate the hiring process based on qualifications and duties of the position.
“They go through equity training to learn what we can legally consider in the hiring decision,” he said. “Gender, race and religion cannot be used in the process.”
While the facilitators are trained to make sure each step of the process is equal for all candidates, Liddicoat said, diversity is encouraged among applicants.
“In academia, there is often not diversity in some fields,” he said. “Our student body and faculty aren’t as diverse as some universities in the CSU.”
Despite the extensive application process, students question whether or not the system is biased toward a professor of a certain persona. They believe that cultural diversity positively contributes to the political science department.
Liddicoat said bias is eliminated in the process entirely based on the requirement of each committee member having to view and evaluate each individual application.
“Some people might be biased against certain people and not consciously give them a full consideration,” he said. “When everyone looks at all applications, we have a chance to remove bias.”
English believes Krishnan’s ethnic and diverse background is a vital part of his teaching methods, which inspires students in the classroom.
“It makes him a very well-rounded person and professor to be able to engage so many different kinds of students,” she said. “He’s like a chameleon: He could be with any type of student or faculty and blend in so well.”
Krishnan encourages his students to learn about his ethnic background to make them more cultured individuals. This past Sunday, he invited students to his home, where he prepared Indian fish curry.
Aside from introducing students to bicultural experiences, Krishnan utilizes these opportunities to connect on a personal level.
“I believe in not just teaching and walking away from a classroom,” he said. “It is a bond you develop with your students; it’s a trust you create.”
The rapport Krishnan created with his students is what inclined them to petition to make a difference in the political science department faculty.
Student input may be factored into the hiring process; however, it varies based on departments, Liddicoat said.
“It is not consistent campuswide,” he said. “It is not a requirement.”
Krishnan’s students continue to fight to be heard on campus. And from the looks of it, the efforts seem to be working.
The petitions landed the students a meeting with Epperson to discuss the paperwork and share why Krishnan is of importance to Cal Poly.
But it doesn’t stop there. Branch has also contacted the Cal Poly Corporation to give the board members a copy of the petition, and English is in the process of collecting 115 additional signatures throughout the week.
“To not rehire Professor Krishnan would be a stunning and regretful mistake,” Branch wrote in his testimony. “(It will) cause a significant loss of respect for the university and the political science department for its failure to identify an outstanding asset and an opportunity to improve the school and the department, ultimately adding to Cal Poly’s fine reputation.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said Krishnan was pursuing a ten-year track teaching position, when he in fact applied for a tenure track position.